For if the matter be attentively considered, a sound argument may be drawn from Poesy, to show that there is agreeable to the spirit of man a more ample greatness, a more perfect order, and a more beautiful variety than it can anywhere (since the Fall) find in nature. […] it [Poesy] raises the mind and carries it aloft, accommodating the shows of things to be desires of the mind, not (like reason and history) buckling and bowing down the mind to the nature of things.
“Utopia,” the neologism of Thomas More’s, has had a singularly rich semantic career in our time. Having at its root the simultaneous indication of a space and a state (itself ambiguously hovering between, for example, French état and condition)that are nonexisting (ou)as well as good (eu),it has become a territory athwart the roads of all travelers pursuing the implications of the question formulated by Plato as “What is the best form of organization for a community and how can a person best arrange his life?”1 And have not the urgencies of the situation in which the human community finds itself made of us all such travelers? Utopia operates by example and demonstration, deictically. At the basis of all utopian debates, in its open or hidden dialogues, is a gesture of pointing, a wide-eyed glance from here to there, a “traveling shot” moving from the author’s everyday lookout to the wondrous panorama of a far-off land:
But you should have been with me in Utopia and personally seen their manner and customs as I did… [More, Utopia,book 1]
1 Laws 3, 702b. See Plato, The Laws,trans, with introduction by A. E. Taylor (London, 1960), p. 85.
… it was winter when I went to bed last night, and now, by witness of the river-side trees, it was summer, a beautiful bright morning seemingly of early June. [Morris, News from Nowhere,chapter 2]
We should both discover that the little towns below had changed – but how, we should not have marked them well enough to know. It would be indefinable, a change in the quality of their grouping, a change in the quality of their remote, small shapes. […] a mighty difference had come to the world of men. [Wells, A Modern Utopia,chapter 1]
Morris’s abruptly beautiful trees can be taken (as they were meant to be) for an emblem of this space and state: utopia is a vivid witness to desperately needed alternative possibilities of “the world of men,” of human life. No wonder the debate has waxed hot whether any particular alternative is viable and whether it has already been found, especially in the various socialist attempts at a radically different social system. In the heat of the debate, detractors of this particular set of alternative conclusions – often shell-shocked refugees from it – have tried to deny the possibility and/or humanity of the utopian concept as such. Other imprudent apologists – often intellectuals with a solid position within the defended system – have taken the symmetrically inverse but equally counterutopian tack of proclaiming that Civitas Dei has already been realized on Earth by their particular sect or nation, in “God’s own country” of North America or the laicized Marxist (or pseudo-Marxist) experiments from Lenin to Castro and Mao. Historians have transferred these debates into the past: were Periclean Athens, Aqbar’s India, Emperor Friedrich’s Sicily, Münzer’s Muhlhausen, the Inca state, or Jeffersonian U.S.A. utopian?
Such fascinating and tempting questions cannot fail to influence us in an underground fashion – defining our semantics –in any approach to a definition of utopia. But I propose to confine myself here to a consideration of utopia as a literary genre. No doubt this is not the first point about utopias – that would pertain to collective psychology: why and how do they arise? – nor is it the last one – that would pertain to the politics of the human species and perhaps even to its cosmology: how is Homo sapiens to survive and humanize its segment of the universe?
Such a politico-eschatological question has understandably arisen out of twentieth-century heretic reinterpretations of the two most systematic bodies of thought about man in our civilization: the Judaeo-Christian one (in spite of its usual pat transfers of the answer into the blue yonder of otherworldly post-mortems) and the Marxist one (in spite of Marx’s and Engels’s scorn of subjective theorizing about ideal futures in their predecessors, the “utopian socialists”). Ernst Bloch’s monumental philosophical opus, culminating in Hope the Principle,has reinterpreted utopia (as have some theologians such as Martin Buber and Paul Tillich) as being any overstepping of the boundaries given to man, hence a quality inherent in all creative thought and action. In a narrower and more academic version, a similar reinterpretation of “utopia” as any orientation that transcends reality and breaks the bounds of existing order, as opposed to “ideology,” which expresses the existing order, was introduced by Karl Mannheim.2 But all these horizons, interesting and even inspiring as they are, are beyond my scope here. I propose that an acknowledgment that utopias are verbal artifacts before they are anything else, and that the source of this concept is a literary genre and its parameters, might be, if not the first and the last, nonetheless a central point in today’s debate on utopias. If this is so, one cannot properly explore the signification of utopia by considering its body (texts) simply as a transparency transmitting a Platonic idea: the signifiant must be understood as well as the signifié. Thus, especially at this time of failing eschatologies, it might even be in the interests of utopia (however widely redefined) if we acted as physiologists asking about a species’ functions and structure before we went on to behave as moralists prescribing codes of existence to it: perhaps such codes ought to take into account the makeup of the organism? And since discussions of utopias are an excellent demonstration of the saying that people who do not master history are condemned to relive it, the physiological stance will have to be combined with an anamnesic one, recalling the historical semantics (in sections 1 and 2) of utopia while trying to tease out its elements (in section 3) and genological context (in sections 4 and 5).
2 See Tillich (a representative essay from which is reprinted in Manuel, ed.), Buber, Bloch, and Mannheim – all in Bibliography II; also the rich anthology on the concept of utopia: Neusüss, ed. (Bibliography II).
1. Historical Semantics: Antediluvian
The first point and fundamental element of a literary definition of utopia is that any utopia is a verbal construction. This might seem self-evident, but it is in fact just beginning to be more widely recognized in the vanguard of “utopology.” The Oxford English Dictionary,for example, defines utopia in the following ways:
1. An imaginary island, depicted by Sir Thomas More as enjoying a perfect social, legal and political system.
b. transf. Any imaginary, indefinitely remote region, country, or locality.
2. A place, state, or condition ideally perfect in respect of politics, laws, customs, and conditions.
b. An impossibly ideal scheme, esp. for social improvement.
Obviously, the OED – whose latest examples come in this case from the turn of the century – has not yet caught up to the necessity and practice of defining utopia as a literary genre.3 If we nonetheless look for clues in the above four definitions, we shall see that the first one pertains to More’s “depiction” of a locus which is, for the OED,defined by two aspects: (1) “imaginary” removal from the author’s (and presumably the reader’s) empirical environment; (2) sociopolitical perfection. The first aspect is then isolated in the semantic practice leading to definition 1b, and the second in the practice leading to 2, which is further treated derisively by hardheaded pragmatists or ideologists of the status quo in 2b. From all this a definition of utopia as a literary form should retain the crucial element of an alternative location radically different in respect of sociopolitical conditions
3 See the stimulating discussion, with more lexicographic material, in Herbrüggen (Bibliography II); also further French, German, and Spanish material in Rita Falke, “Utopie – logische Konstruktion und chimère,” in Villgradter and Krey, eds. (Bibliography II).
from the author’s historical environment. However, this element must be valorized in the context of a literary-theoretical approach.
Only in OED 1 is there even a discreet mumble about the utopia being an artistic artifact, hidden in the ambiguous “depicted” (about which more later). All the other definitions refer to its qualities of perfection, remoteness, or impossibility. This ontological equating of utopia to England, Germany, or any other empirical country was an accepted nineteenth- and early twentieth-century way of defining it. I shall adduce only a few definitions from some better-known and more helpful works pertaining to such a way of thinking, which might well-regardless of their actual year – be called antediluvian:
- Utopias […] are ideal pictures of other worlds, the existence or possibility of which cannot be scientifically demonstrated, and in which we only believe. [Voigt, 1906]
- More depicted a perfect, and perhaps unrealizable, society, located in some nowhere, purged of the shortcomings, the wastes, and the confusion of our own time and living in perfect adjustment, full of happiness and contentment. [Hertzler, 1923]
- an ideal commonwealth whose inhabitants exist under perfect conditions. [Encyclopedia Britannica,accepted by Berneri, 1950]4
All of the above definitions or delimitations consider utopia simply as a Platonic idea and proceed to examine its believability and readability. Hertzler (2) is the most effusive and prolix among them: the definition of utopias in general on which her whole book is predicated, is effected by a definition of More’s work prefaced with the statement that this definition isolates the distinctive characteristic applicable to all “imaginary ideal
- These definitions can be found in the following books (whenever in my quotes the subject and predicate are missing, “utopia is” is implied): Voigt, p. 1; Hertzler, pp. 1–2; Berneri, p. 320 (all in Bibliography II). A number of very useful approaches to utopia are not referred to here, as they were not found cognate to a primarily literary-theoretical viewing; a still greater number were found of little use except for a history of “utopologic thought.”
societies.” The vagueness (“perhaps,” “some nowhere”) and non-sequiturs (More depicted a society purged of “the confusion of our own time”) make Hertzler a very good example – though greater offenders could be found in the antediluvian age – of the uselessness to our endeavors of most surveys of “utopian Thought” as being idealistic and ideological. All the above definitions, moreover, do not (except by vague suggestions inherent in “commonwealth” or “society”) distinguish between various religious “ideal pictures of other worlds” and utopias. This echoes the (once?) widely-held unexamined premise that utopias are really lay variants of paradise. Now if this is true, it is so only in the sense which would make a counterproject out of a variant. Whereas it remains very important to pursue the historical underground continuation of absolutistic religious and mythological structures (especially those drawn from the Islands of the Blessed and Terrestrial Paradises) in Plato, More, or a number of other utopian writers, it should seem clear that there is little point in discussing utopias as a separate entity, if their basic humanistic, this-worldly, historically alternative aspect is not stressed and adopted as one of their differentiae genericae. “A wishful construct has been explicated, a rational one, that does not possess chiliastic certainties of hope any more, but postulates the possibility of being constructed by its own forces, without transcendental support or intervention,” observes Bloch even about More’s Utopia.5 What is literally even more important, such a construct is located in this world. Utopia is an Other World immanent in the world of human endeavor, dominion, and hypothetic possibility – and not transcendental in a religious sense. It is a nonexistent country on the map of this globe, a “this-worldly other world.” No doubt, there is the pragmatic, Macaulayan sense of utopia being anything intangible and impossibly far-off, as opposed to immovable property in one’s own property-owning environment (“An acre in Middlesex is better than a principality in Utopia”)6; this sense would also englobe all Heavenly and Earthly Paradises. But from any point of view except that of a
- Bloch, p. 607.
- Quoted in the OED; see Thomas Babington Macaulay, “Lord Bacon,” in his Critical, Historical and Miscellaneous Essays and Poems (Albany, 1887), 2:229.
property-owner and pragmatist, religion is, as Ruyer notes, counterutopian. It is directed either towards Heaven (transcendence) or towards Middlesex (bounded empirical environment): in either case it is incompatible with a non-transcendental overstepping of empirical boundaries.7 The telos of religion is, finally, eternity or timelessness, not history. On the contrary, just as the satire is an impossible possible – what is empirically possible is felt as axiologically impossible; it should not be possible – utopia is a possible impossible. Subversion and rhetoric embrace in a paradoxical sociopolitical revaluation of the Petrarchan “icy fire” impossibilia – a “positive adynaton” in Barthes’s term.8
Thus, chemin faisant,we have found that the (still not too precise) element of historical alternative enters any definition which would leave utopia intact as a literary genre and object of exploration. We have still to pursue the metaphors adopted as a first try at untying the embarrassing knot of utopia’s being a concept and belief and yet, at the same time, obviously a (literary) artifact – a “picture” (2 and 4) or a “description” (4 and 5):
(4) A. Nom donné par Thomas Morus au pays imaginaire qu’il décrit dans son ouvrage: De Optimo reipublicae statu, deque nova insula Utopia (1516), et dans lequel il place un people parfaitement sage, puissant et heureux, grâce aux institutions idéales dont il jouit.
B. Se dit par extension de tous les tableaux représentant, sous la forme d’une description concrète et détaillée (et sou-vent même comme un roman), l’organisation idéale d’une sociéte humaine. [Lalande, ed. of 1968, but text goes back at least to 1928]
- Name given by Thomas More to the imaginary country which he describes in his work De Optimo reipublicae statu, deque nova insula Utopia (1516), and into which he collocates a people that is perfectly wise, powerful, and happy, thanks to the ideal institutions with which it is provided.
- Said by extension of all pictures representing, by means of a detailed and concrete description (often even as a novel), the ideal organization of a human society.]
- Ruyer (Bibliography II), p. 31; see also Schwonke (Bibliography II), pp. 1–3, in whose book this is a basic theme, and Gerber (Bibliography I), pp. 6–7.
- Barthes (Bibliography II), p. 122.
(5) la description d’un monde imaginaire, en dehors […] de l’espace et du temps historiques et géographiques. C’est la description d’un monde constitué sur des principes differents de ceux qui sont à l’oeuvre dans le monde réel.9 [Ruyer, 1950] [the description of an imaginary world, outside […] of historical and geographic space and time. This is a description of a world based on principles that differ from those underlying the real world.]
“Description” is derived etymologically from “writing,” but in an archaic and ambiguous sense which, as it were, echoes the derivation of writing from drawing. Above it is clearly employed within the semantics pertaining to painting: “il décrit […] il place” (in 4a. placing pertains to the way a landscape painter would arrange his figures); and “tableaux représentant, sous la forme d’une description” is a classic witness for my thesis (4b.). Even (5), which is more abstract than the previous definitions, continues its discussion in the immediately following line by contrasting such descriptions to those of a nonutopian novelist, who “lui, place des personnages et des aventures imaginaires dans notre monde.”10 Utopia, as well as “our world,” is a scene for dramatis personae and actions; the metaphor of author as puppeteer (stage manager), never far beneath the metaphor of author as painter (scenographer), has here come nearer to the surface.
Such a dramatic metaphor, linked as it is to the “all the world’s a stage” topos, is potentially much more fruitful – since drama fuses painting and literature, temporal and spatial arts – and very appropriate for this dialogic form. Unfortunately, it has not, to my knowledge, been taken seriously in defining utopias. Thus such attempts at acknowledging the artificial character of utopia have remained half-hearted. They have failed because they did not acknowledge that it is a literary artifact. This is crucial because the problems of “depicting” a radically different (5) because perfect (4) imaginary world are in a literary artifact quite distinct from the problems
- These definitions can be found in Lalande (Bibliography II), p. 1179 – and see the whole discussion on pp. 1178–81 – and Ruyer, p. 3. See also the definition of Dupont (Bibliography III C), p. 14, which is transitional between the first group of definitions and this one. All the translations in this book, unless otherwise indicated, are mine.
- Ruyer, p. 3; italics added.
of a “tableau,” which exists in an arrested moment of time and in a synoptic space. A picture may perhaps approximate the status of a mirror of external reality (though even the mirror reverses). In literature, a concrete and detailed “description” or, better, verbal construction is not, in any precise sense, a “re-presentation” of a preexisting idea which would be the content of that representation or description (where would such an idea preexist? with the Zeitgeist?).Literary texts cannot be divided into body and soul, only into interlocking levels of a multifunctional body, which is a human construct out of verbal denotations and connotations. Only within such a context can the definition of its thematic field – practically identical from (2) to (5) – become a valid part of a literary definition. The imaginary community (the term seems preferable to the ambiguous “world”) in which human relations are organized more perfectly than in the author’s community can be accepted as a first approximation to identifying the thematic nucleus of the utopian genre.
One further point should account for my substitution of “more perfectly” in place of the “perfect” in (2) to (4). Though historically most of the older utopias tried to imagine a certain perfection, after Bacon’s New Atlantis and Fénelon’s Télémaque (not to forget Plato’s Laws)a suspicion ought to have arisen that this is not inherent in the genre. That suspicion should have grown into a certainty after Saint-Simon and Morris. By the time Wells wrote his celebrated first page of A Modern Utopia distinguishing between static and kinetic utopias, the laggard academic and literary critics of the genre found their work done for them. Since then we have had no further excuse for insisting on absolute perfection, but only on a state radically better or based on a more perfect principle than that prevailing in the author’s community, as a hallmark of the utopian genre.11 As for
- See the analogous argument in Walsh (for the titles in this note see Bibliography II), p. 25. The position of utopia midway between the corruptible world of class history and ideal perfection is quite analogous – as will be discussed in section 4 of this chapter – to the position of Earthly Paradise in religious thought; see for example the definition of Athanasius of Alexandria:
The Terrestrial Paradise we expound as not subject to corruption in the way in which our plants and our fruits get corrupted by putrefaction and worms. Nor is
the “author’s community,” this phrase can be left conveniently plastic to embrace whatever the author and his ideal readers would have felt to be their community – from city to nation to planet.
2. Historical Semantics: Postdiluvian
In the last twenty years, at least in literary criticism and theory, the premise has become acceptable that utopia is first of all a literary genre or fiction. The Cold War “end of ideology” climate might have contributed to this (it can be felt, for example, in the disclaimers in the Negley-Patrick book discussed below), but more importantly, it has been part of a deeper epistemological shift in literary scholarship – a belated recognition that, as Frye wrote, the literary critic “should be able to construct and dwell in a conceptual universe of his own.”12 I shall again adduce only a few definitions as characteristic examples for works of this period, after the deluge of two world wars and two cycles of worldwide revolutions:
(6) There are three characteristics which distinguish the utopia from other forms of literature or speculation:
- It is fictional.
- It describes a particular state or community.
- Its theme is the political structure of that fictional state or community….
it, on the other hand, wholly incorruptible, so that it-would not in future centuries decay by growing old. But if it is compared with our fruits and our gardens, it is superior to all corruption; while if it is compared to the glory of the coming Good, which eye hath not seen nor ear heard nor the heart of man comprehended, it is and is reputed to be vastly inferior.
Athanasii archiep. Alexandrini, Opera omnia quae extant… (Paris, 1698) 2:279, quoted in Coli, p. 39. The insistence on utopia as wholly “ideal” can still be found in Herbrüggen – see note 13.
- Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism,p. 12.
Utopias are expressions of political philosophy and theory, to be sure, but they are descriptions of fictional states in which the philosophy and theory are already implemented in the institutions and procedures of the social structure. [Negley and Patrick, 1952]
- … the literary ideal image of an imaginary social system (Staatsordnung).
- the utopian novel is the literary manifestation of a playful synopsis of man, society, and history in a variable, image-like (bildhaft) thought model possessing spatio-temporal autonomy, which model permits the exploration of possibilities detached from social reality yet relating to it. [Krysmanski, 1963]
- la description littéraire individualisée d’une société imaginaire, organisée sur des bases qui impliquent une critique sous-jacente de la société réelle.13 [Cioranescu, 1972] [the individualized literary description of an imaginary society, organized on bases which imply an underlying critique of the real society.]
Negley and Patrick (6) seem to have been the first expressly to enunciate a differentiation between the utopia of political scientists and Geisteswissenschaftler (“expressions of political philosophy and theory”) and that of the literary critics and theorists (“fictional states,” theme and ideas “implemented”). Their pioneering status is evident in certain uneasy compromise with the older conception which they are abandoning.14 But as well as their use of the by-now dead metaphor of describing (which in a proper context it would perhaps be pedantic to fault), their failure to elaborate what exactly fictional implementation entails and their de facto concentration in the book on sociopolitical ideas and structure unrelated to the literary structure leave their definition somewhat isolated and without consequences. But their useful and influential book at least indicated the horizons of studying what they called in their preface, in a mixture of conceptual styles, both “utopian thought in Western civilization” (old style) and also, somewhat shamefacedly, “the literary genre of the utopists” (new style).
- These definitions can be found in the books by Negley and Patrick, pp. 3–4; Herbrüggen, p. 7; Krysmanski, p. 19; and Cioranescu, p. 22 – all in Bibliography II.
- No doubt, there were earlier implicit or incidental suggestions that fictional utopia was primarily a literary genre, e.g. in Dupont – in spite of his definition and title – and in Frye, Anatomy. But the voices of these, and possibly of other, precursors fell on deaf ears.
On the other hand, Herbrüggen (7) starts boldly and happily by identifying utopia as literary, but then leaves it dangling in intense vagueness by calling it not only “imaginary” but also the “ideal image.” Later in this work, he has many just and stimulating things to say about its delimitation from other genres. In particular, he has been a pioneer in drawing some structural consequences from defining utopia as possessing a literary mode of existence. However, a number of his parameters, including his definition, seem to fit More (his particular paradigm), or indeed a utopian program, better than they would an ideal-typical utopia.
Krysmanski’s (8) sociological exploration of German “utopian novels” of the twentieth century (which ought rather to be called science fiction, as I shall argue in section 5) set itself the laudable aim of discovering and fully defining “the specific nature of the utopian novel”: his definition is the conclusion of a chapter with that title. Unfortunately, for an analysis of a “literary manifestation” (Erscheinungsform)it is far too little conversant with fundaments of literary theory and criticism. One’s sympathy and tolerance lie with his Aristotelian basic approach, striving for a definition which must be precise and comprehensive, in which case technical jargon is almost impossible to avoid. Nonetheless, it is not only the Teutonic and Mannheimian “sociology of knowledge” nature of the jargon which makes one pause, it is primarily the arbitrariness and vagueness of the elements of the definition, which seem to prove that modern definitions can be every bit as prolix-cum-insufficient as the antediluvian ones. It may be useful to draw our attention to the elements of playfulness, of simultaneous viewing or synopsis (Zusammenschau)of man, society, and history, or of an exploration of possibilities. But why “manifestation of a synopsis” (the German is still worse: “Erscheinungsform der […] Zusammenschau”)? Why “variable,” “image-like,” and “spatio-temporal autonomy” – is not every Denkmodell such? And the final clause evidently pertains to science fiction in general, being too wide for utopia, which is bound up with the (here missing) “more perfect community” concept.
As for Cioranescu’s book devoted to “utopia and literature,” a work full of stimulating and provocative statements, I shall return to later. At this point, it might suffice to point out with relief how neat and with unease how overgeneralized his definition is (9). Are not Paradise, an Island of the Blessed, or satirical SF covered by it as well? And, not to boggle at minor maters, just what is “the real society”?
3. A Proposed Definition: Utopia as Verbal Construction
The historico-semantical discussion of the preceding two sections has come up with the following elements for defining utopia: a radically different and historically alternative sociopolitical condition; an alternative locus; an imaginary community in which relations are organized more perfectly than in the author’s community; the fictional or, more clearly, “verbal construction” character of any such condition, location, or community; the particular or individualized character of any such construct as opposed to general and abstract utopian projects and programs. I shall now commit the utopian imprudence of proposing after the above critique a construct or definition of my own:
Utopia is the verbal construction of a particular quasi-human community where sociopolitical institutions, norms, and individual relationships are organized according to a more perfect principle than in the author’s community, this construction being based on estrangement arising out of an alternative historical hypothesis.
I have indicated earlier in general outline the importance to be allotted to the element of verbal construction. This can be fully demonstrated only in particular analyses of utopian works. But its relevance can be seen even in a general answer to the question: what type of verbal construction? As Frye has pointed out, utopia belongs to a narrative form and tradition which he calls anatomy (or Menippean satire) rather than to the novel. The anatomy deals less with illusionistic “people as such than with mental attitudes” and at its most concentrated “presents us with a vision of the world in terms of a single intellectual pattern.”15 Our critical judgments should take this into
- Frye, pp. 309 and 310.
account; in particular, there is no point in expecting from a characterization and plotting which are more allegorical than naturalistic the qualities and criteria induced from the psychological novel, from Prévost to Proust or Richardson to Henry James.16 To take one example, the conclusions of Gerber’s interesting book on twentieth-century utopias (or rather SF) are vitiated by his assumption and definition of utopia as a novel.17 To take another, Elliott has aptly complained about one of the dominant interpretations of More’s Utopia:
We are given no sense […] that these questions exist, not as abstract political, religious, or philosophical propositions, but as constitutive elements in a work of art. What is wanted instead of the Catholic interpretation of communism is an interpretation of Utopia that will show us how the question of communism is incorporated into the total structure of the work.18
Further, some basic structural characteristics of utopia seem to flow logically from its status as a discourse about a particular, historically alternative, and better community. Since such a discourse will necessarily present an opposition which is a formal analogy to the author’s delimited environment and its way of life, any utopia must be (1) a rounded, isolated locus (valley, island, planet – later, temporal epoch). Since it has to show more perfectly organized relationships, the categories under which the author and his age subsume these relationships (government, economics, religion, warfare, etc.) must be in some way or other (2) articulated in a panoramic sweep whose sum is the inner organization of the isolated locus; as Barthes remarks about Fourier (and some other writers), the syntax or composition
- The famous quarrel between James and Wells – available in Leon Edel and Gordon N. Ray, eds., Henry James and H.G. Wells (Urbana, IL, 1958) – which resulted in a draw rather than in the vindication of the psychological novel the Jamesians saw in it, is a clear example of the collision between the “anatomic” or allegorical and the “novelistic” or individualistic orientations.
- Gerber, final two chapters, and in particular pp. 121–22. See the critique by Elliott
(Bibliography II), p. 104 and the whole chapter “Aesthetics of Utopia.” 18 Elliott, pp. 28–29.
of elements is identified with creation in such works.19 Since not only the elements but also their articulation and coordination have to be based on more perfect principles than the categorization in the author’s civilization (for example, the federalist pyramid from bottom up of More’s Utopia as opposed to the centralist pyramid from top down of More’s England and Europe), (3) a formal hierarchic system becomes the supreme order and thus the supreme value in utopia: there are authoritarian and libertarian, class and classless utopias, but no unorganized ones. (Morris’s reticence about organization and hierarchy in News from Nowhere places that work halfway between utopia and Earthly Paradise; see chapter 8). Usually the installation of the new order must be explained – a contract theory, as Frye observes, is implied in each utopia (King Utopus, the socialist revolution, gas from a comet, etc., being the arbiters or contract-makers). The utopian contract is necessarily opposed to the dominant contract-myth in the author’s society as the more reverent “contract behind the contract,”20 a human potential which existing society has alienated and failed to realize. Lastly, utopia is bound to have (4) an implicit or explicit dramatic strategy in its panoramic review conflicting with the “normal” expectations of the reader. Though formally closed, significant utopia is thematically open: its pointings reflect back upon the reader’s “topia.” I have already hinted at that in section 1, and one critic has even conveniently found a threeact dramatic structure in More’s Utopia.21Whether this is exact or not, there is no doubt that an analysis of ideational protagonists and settings in Burkean “dramatistic” terms is here appropriate.22 For example, utopia is invariably a frame-within-a-frame, because it is a specific wondrous stage, set within the world stage; techniques of analyzing the play-within-theplay could be profitably employed when dealing with it. The varieties of
- Barthes, p. 9; this whole discussion is indebted to Barthes’s book, though I do not wholly share his horizons.
- Northrop Frye, “Varieties of Literary Utopias,” in Manuel, ed., p. 38.
- Edward Surtz, S.J., “Utopia as a Work of Literary Art,” in Edward Surtz, S.J., and J.H. Hexter, eds., The Complete Works of St. Thomas More (New Haven, 1965), 4: cxxvcliii, especially in the chapter “Dramatic Technique, Characterization, and Setting.” 22 E.g. Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form (New York, 1957).
the outer frame – usually some variant of the imaginary voyage23 – have been readily noticeable and as such the object of critical attention; less so their correlation of say, the humanistic symposium of More or the socialist dream-which-might-be-a-vision of Morris with the experience in the inner frame. Even on the stylistic and not only compositional level, such a strategy should be fruitful: “l’écriture,” remarks Barthes of Fourier, “doit mobiliser en même temps une image et son contraire [the writing must mobilize at the same time an image and its opposite].”24 Finally, “verbal construction” as a definitional element bypasses, I hope, the old theologizing quarrel whether a utopia can be realized, whether in fact (according to one school) only that which is realizable or on the contrary (according to another but equally dogmatic school) only that which is unrealizable can be called utopia. Neither prophecy nor escapism, utopia is, as many critics have remarked, an “as if,”25 an imaginative experiment or “a methodical organ for the New.”26 Literary utopia – and every description of utopia is literary – is a heuristic device for perfectibility, an epistemological and not an ontological entity. “L’utopie est un jeu, mais un jeu sérieux. L’utopiste a le sens des possibilités autres de la nature, mais il ne s’éloigne pas de la notion de la nature [Utopia is a game, but a serious game. The utopian author envisages the other possibilities of nature, but he does not let go of
- Historically this is especially significant in antiquity and Renaissance, when most utopias and imaginary voyages were combined, but it does not have to persist as an explicit combination. See the excellent survey of Gove (Bibliography III A), much in need of newer follow-ups.
- Barthes, p. 115.
- See Hans Vaihinger, Die Philosophie des Als Ob (Leipzig, 1920) or The Philosophy of “As If ”,trans. C. K. Ogden (New York, 1924). The verbal mode appropriate to this is the subjunctive: see Elliott, p. 115; Samuel R. Delany, “About Five Thousand One Hundred and Seventy Five Words,” in Clareson, ed., SF (Bibliography I); Michael Holquist, “How to Play Utopia,” in Jacques Ehrmann, ed., Game, Play, Literature (Boston, 1971), particularly illuminating in his discussion of utopias as a literature of the subjunctive in “hypothetical or heuristic time,” p. 112; and Claude-Gilbert
Dubois, “Une architecture fixionelle,” Revue des sciences humaines 39, No. 155 (1974): 449–71.
- Bloch, p. 180.
the notion of nature]” argued Ruyer in two chapters which remain among the best written on the “utopian mode.”27 He referred to utopian subject matter as “les possibles latéraux [the lateral possibilities]” and compared the utopian approach or view to the hypothetico-deductive method in experimental sciences and mathematics (for example, non-Euclidean geometries). If utopia is, then, philosophically, a method rather than a state, it cannot be realized or not realized – it can only be applied. That application is, however, as important as it has been claimed that the realization of utopia is: without it man is truly alienated or one-dimensional. But to apply a literary text means first of all (wherever it may later lead) to read as a dramatic dialogue with the reader.28 Besides requiring the willingness of the reader to enter into dialogue, the application of utopia depends on the closeness and precision of his reading.
4. Comment: Utopia as Historical Estrangement
I have thus far worked upon certain premises, among them that scholarly inquiry is possible only when oriented towards, and by, an at least approximately delimited and defined field and that valid definitions in literary studies – as in anything – are historical and not transcendental, or “contextualist” and not “essentialist.” Proceeding further, it is necessary to add that the basic diachronic way to define the context of a work of art
- Ruyer, chapters 1 and 2; the first quotation is from p. 4 and the later one p. 9; Ruyer acknowledges the stimulus of an observation by Lalande, p. 1180. Unfortunately, the analysis of actual utopian characteristics and works in the rest of Ruyer’s book is much less felicitous.
- Some of my conclusions are very similar to those of Harry Berger, Jr., in his more synoptic, seminal introductory discussion of the “other world” in “The Renaissance World: Second World and Green World,” The Centennial Review 9 (1965): 36–78. Regret fully I must add that I believe his particular argument about Utopia – that More differs radically from Hythloday – to be wholly unconvincing.
is to insert it into the tradition and system of its genre (meaning by that a socioaesthetic entity with a specific inner life, yet in a constant osmosis with other literary genres, science, philosophy, everyday socioeconomic life, and so on). Understanding particular utopias really presupposes a definition and delimitation of their literary genre (or, as we shall see, subgenre), its inner processes, logic, and telos. What is, then, the distinctive set of traits of the literary genre “utopia,” its differentia generica?
I have argued in my first two chapters for a division of prose literature into naturalistic and estranged genres. The literary mainstream of the individualistic age endeavors faithfully to reproduce empirical textures, surfaces, and relationships vouched for by human senses and common sense. Utopia, on the contrary, endeavors to illuminate men’s relationships to other men and to their surroundings by the basic device of a radically different location for the postulated novel human relations of its fable; and I have proposed to call literary genres which have such a different formal framework “estranged.” One should insist on the crucial concept of a radically different location, of an alternative formal framework functioning by explicit or implicit reference to the author’s empirical environment. Without this reference, nonutopian readers, having no yardstick for comparison, could not understand the alternative novelty. Conversely, without such a return and feedback into the reader’s normality there would be no function for utopias or other estranged genres: “the real function of estrangement is – and must be – the provision of a shocking and distancing mirror above the all too familiar reality.”29 No-place is defined by both not being and yet being like Place, by being the opposite and more perfect version of Place. It is a “positive negation,” a “merveilleux reel,”30 the standing on its head of
- Ernst Bloch, “Entfremdung, Verfremdung,” Verfremdungen,1 (Frankfurt a. M., 1963), English as “Entfremdung, Verfremdung: Alienation, Estrangement,” trans. Anne Halley and Darko Suvin, in Erika Munk, ed., Brecht (New York, 1972), p. 10. For “estrangement,” see the discussion and references in my first chapter (Shklovsky and Brecht), as well as Bloch, Das Prinzip Hoffnung.
- “Positive negation” is the term used in Mikhail Bakhtin’s fundamental Tvorchestvo
Fransua Rable… (Moscow, 1965), English as Rabelais and His World (Bibliography
II), p. 403; but see also this whole book for a rich and persuasive account of folk
an already topsy-turvy or alienated world, which thus becomes dealienated or truly normal when measured not by ephemeral historical norms of a particular civilization but by “species-specific” human norms. Utopia is thus always predicated on a certain theory of human nature. It takes up and refunctions the ancient topos of mundus inversus: utopia is a formal inversion of significant and salient aspects of the author’s world which has as its purpose or telos the recognition that the author (and reader) truly live in an axiologically inverted world. It follows, as has been increasingly recognized in modern investigations (and as has been mentioned in passing in section 1), that the explicit utopian construction is the logical obverse of any satire.31 Utopia explicates what satire implicates, and vice versa. Furthermore, there are strong indications that the two are in fact phylogenetically connected in the folk-inversions and “saturas” of the Saturnalias, whose theme was sexual, political, and ideological reversal, in fact total existential “reversal of values, of social roles, of social norms.”32 The best argument in favor of that can be found in the ontogenesis of individual works, in – to stick to utopias and cognate estranged genres – the most prominent titles of the tradition which runs from Lucian’s True Histories and More’s Utopia through Fourier, Bellamy, Morris, Wells, and Zamyatin to modern SF. A guess could even be hazarded that the significance and scope of writings in this tradition can be gauged by the degree of integration between its constructive-utopian and satiric aspects: the deadly earnest blueprint and the totally closed horizons of “new maps of hell” both lack aesthetic wisdom.
However, besides satire (which can be, like utopia, both a mode and a genre) the estranged literary genres comprise several which are differentiated from utopia by not situating what Aristophanes calls their topos apragmon in the field of an alternative historical hypothesis. The most relevant ones are, in ascending order, myth, fantasy, folktale, Cockayne, and Terrestrial Paradise.
humor as the source for inverting and negating a dominant, upper-class feeling of reality. “Merveilleux réel” is an expression of Barthes’s, p. 101.
31 See Frye, Anatomy,pp. 309–12; Lalande, p. 1180; Negley and Patrick, pp. 5–6; and especially Elliott, chapter 1, “Saturnalia, Satire, and Utopia.” 32 Elliott, p. 11.
I have tried to deal with myth in my earlier chapters, and I can only repeat that, although it is also shaped as a specific form of estrangement, myth is diametrically opposed to a historical approach.33 Conceiving human relationships to be fixed and supernaturally determined, myth claims to explain phenomena by identifying their eternal essence; conceiving human relationships to be changeable and maternally determined, history attempts to explain phenomena by identifying their problematic context. From a historical point of view, myth itself is a historical phenomenon and problem, an illusion when not a fraud. Literature is, in fact, never truly a myth (though mythological tales are literature) but only, in certain cases, formally analogous to mythical structure or mythomorphic. Thus, for example, the myth of the Golden Age can have many formal analogies and elements in common with utopia, but utopia is its opposite:
… man’s effort to work out imaginatively what happens – or what might happen – when the primal longings embodied in the myth confront the principle of reality. In this effort man no longer merely dreams of a divine state in some remote time; he assumes the role of creator himself.
A characteristic of the Golden Age […] is that it exists outside history, usually before history beings: in illo tempore.34
Folktale and fantasy,being morphological and ideological descendants of fragmented mythology (in the case of fantasy privatized to boot), can be regarded in a similar way. Neither of them pretends to be historically oriented or in historical time. Both take place in a context of supernatural laws oriented towards the protagonist, whereas for humanistic historiosophy – including utopia – nature is neutral and man’s destiny is man.
Somewhat closer to utopia is Cockayne (Cuccagna, Schlaraffenland), a widespread folk legend of a land of peace, plenty, and repose, probably
- See also Ruyer, pp. 4–6. For all my admiration of Professor Frye’s insights, here I obviously disagree with the horizon and main terminology of his work – and in particular with his classifying Dante’s Paradise and Purgatorio as utopian, in Manuel, ed., p. 34.
- Elliott, pp. 8–9.
refurbished by the student-poets of goliardic and “prandial” libertinism.35 This legend is interesting here because the land where roasted fowls fly into your mouth, rivers flow with cream or wine, and sausages with a fork stuck into them run around crying “eat me, eat me!” is obviously an inverted image of the hunger, toil, and violence in the authors’ everyday lives. Cockayne is already an inverted parallel world that relates, if not yet to a historical hypothetical possibility organized into institutions, then at least to everyday human needs and not to transcendental doctrines:
La fiction paralléle, la préoccupation pour le destin de l’homme et la solution strictement matérialiste sont les trois traits fondamentaux qu’ont en commun l’utopie et la pays de Cocagne….
Le matérialisme ainsi entendu ignore les restrictions mentales et transcende la matière pour la transformer en divinité tutelaire et en providence.36
[The parallel fiction, the preoccupation with human destiny and the strictly materialist solution are the three fundamental traits which utopia and Cockayne have in common….
Taken thus, materialism ignores mental restrictions and transcends matter in order to transform it into patron deity and providence.]
Clearly, as Cioranescu notes, this does not jibe with the fundamental utopian context of a neutral nature: but utopia wishes to achieve by cognitive means and in a context of hypothetically inflected history what the legend of Cockayne achieved in a pure wishdream outside the terrible field of history. While still a folktale, Cockayne can be readily transferred to the vicinity of utopia by allying its dream to a cognitive context, as in Rabelais.
The Earthly Paradise may be even nearer to utopia. Outside official Christianity, it is as a rule not transhistoric, but can be reached by an
- See Bakhtin’s chapter “Banquet Imagery,” especially pp. 296–98, and Morton (Bibliography II), pp. 15–27. For some further references to Cockayne see Ackermann, Bonner (both in Bibliography III B), Boas, pp. 167–68, Patch, pp. 51 and 170–71 (both in Bibliography II), Gatz, pp. 116–21, Grauss, Manuel and Manuel (all in Bibliography III B), and note 36.
- Cioranescu, pp. 57 and 59, but see his whole passage on pp. 55–62, which presents the best analysis of Cockayne I know of. For connections with satire see also Elliott, pp. 16–17.
ordinary voyage. It is divided from other lands by a barrier, which makes it usually an island in the sea – an Island of the Blessed, as the Greek tradition from time immemorial has it and as many other writings, anonymous or famous, also know it, to wit, the Celtic blessed island or Dante’s Paradiso Terrestre in the western sea.37 Often, especially in versions unaffected by religious rewriting, the inhabitants are not disembodied, but are simply more perfect people. The implied critique of the author’s environment is explicated in a whole group of “other world” tales.38 The magical or folktale element is clearly present in the perfect climate, the freedom from cares and strife, and often in the arrested time on such blessed islands (so that a return from them entails instant aging or turning to dust). And yet, the proximity of utopia of Terrestrial Paradise in its unbowdlerized versions is impressively indicated by a tale such as that of the Guarani Land-Without-
Evil. That land, also called the House of Our Ancestress,
is difficult to reach, but it is located in this world. Although […] it entails paradisiacal dimensions (for instance, immortality) – the Land-Without-Evil does not belong to the Beyond. […] One arrives there […] [not only] in soul or spirit, but in flesh and bones. […] [It] is thus a world at once real and transfigured, where life continues according to the same familiar model, but […] without misery or sickness, without sins or injustice, and without age.39
- A general survey on ideas about the Golden Age, Eden, and Paradise is to be found in Manuel and Manuel, who, however, fail to make the crucial distinction between heavenly and earthly paradise. On Greek tales see Bonner, Lovejoy and Boas, the comment in Bloch, chap. 36 (all in Bibliography II), and a number of works from Bibliography III B, especially Gatz, Finley, Pöhlmann, Rohde, and Winston. For medieval tales and beliefs about localized “other worlds” see Boas, Coli, Graf, “II Mito del Paradiso Terrestre,” Patch (all in Bibliography II), and a number of works from Bibliography III B, especially Curtius, Graus, Kampers, Peters, and Westropp; Coli, p. 130, and Patch, p. 135, comment on the accessibility and material reality of Eden for medieval minds. See also Giamatti (Bibliography II) for Renaissance echoes.
- See Patch, p. 128, and Coli, p. 130.
- Mircea Eliade, “Paradise and Utopia,” in Manuel, ed., pp. 273–75. For paradises located on Earth see also Boas, pp. 154–74, Graf, pp. 15 and 24, and Coli, p. 91; and for the arrival in flesh at Earthly Paradise the Hellenic testimonies in Lovejoy and Boas, pp. 25–30 and 290–303, where further bibliography can also be found.
Is such a country outside history, as Eliade thinks? It is certainly outside empirical or known history, but it is at the same time an alternative, hypothetically possible, and supremely desirable history on Earth. All the above qualifications could be applied to utopia, not only in my proposed definition but according to most of the quoted definitions too. It lacks only More’s great discovery of focusing on sociopolitical institutions and norms as a key to eliminating misery, sickness, and injustice. The usual utopian answer, communal ownership, is here preserved (the Guaranis did not need to attain it) by means of what Bloch calls a “medical utopia” (search for immortality, eternal health, and youth). If not utopia, this is a fraternal genre: an early and primitive branch of SF.
5. Comment: Utopia as a More Perfect Organized Community
Finally, the relationships of utopia to other genres of what I have in the earlier chapters called “cognitive estrangement” – SF, pastoral, and nonfictional works – should also be discussed.
This will account for the necessity of all my definitional elements between “verbal construction” and the final clause. Just like Cockayne, the pastoral is akin at least to libertarian utopia in its rejection of money economy, cleavage between town and country, and state apparatus. But just like Cockayne, it is primarily a unomia,a land without formalized institutions, without organized superstructures of community life.40 If Cockayne is the land for sensualists, Earthly Paradise for heroes, and pastoral for swains (shepherds as philosophers, poets, and lovers), utopia is the land for naturalistic human figures just slightly larger (more virtuous) than everyday nature.
- Cioranescu, pp. 60–61.
The definitional element of a particular community is necessary, as observed in section 3, in order to differentiate utopia from general beliefs, programs, and unlocalized projects. However, as soon as the blueprints and beliefs become localized and approach a narrative (as in much of the writing of utopian socialists), there is little delimitation provided by any definition of utopia I can think of. The usual escape clause is that utopia is belles lettres or fiction, while Saint-Simon or Fourier are lettres or nonfiction. But that distinction, though sufficiently normative in the eighteenth-century to allow Swift to base the formal framework of Gulliver’s Travels on playing with it, is historically a fugitive one. What was the Guarani legend of Land-Without-Evil or Columbus’s letter on finding the Terrestrial Paradise beyond the Orinoco for the authors, fiction or nonfiction? And for us? What is, for that matter, the Bible – theology or “literature” in the sense of fiction? The term “literature” has always wavered between a populist or sociological inclusive extreme (everything published in printed form) and an elitist or aesthetical exclusive extreme (only those “belles” works worthy of entering into a normative history of “literature”). In brief, the eighteenth-nineteenth century escape clause does not seem to me to work any longer, since it deals in subjective values and intangible intentions. Suppose it were found that the Supplement to Bougainville’s Voyage had been written by Bougainville instead of Diderot – would it cease to be utopian? And if Fourier had published his vision of anti-lions and a sea of lemonade with Jules Verne’s editor, would it thereby become SF? We are beginning to move in the Borgesian world, where the same text has opposite meanings according to the intention of the author. This is good satiric fun, but any literary theory which can be built upon such premises would have to reject most that we now dignify with such a name. The same dilemma applies to ethnological reports: if literature is not defined by being right or wrong but by illuminating human relationships in certain ways and by certain means, I see no way of delimiting Lévi-Strauss’s sequence on myths from fictional literature or belles lettres. Reports on the perfect Inca empire, it has been argued, had inspired More. This is probably inexact, but such a report, especially if related at second hand, would have been generically indistinguishable from the Utopia (although, among other things, surely less witty). If I have argued all along in this chapter for utopia as literature, it is precisely because of such a breakdown in the philosophy of literature. The resulting inchoate mass should at least be judged by taking into account the whole text and not arbitrary essences abstracted from it: as imaginative, though not imaginary.41
The definitional element of quasi-human refers to such communities as those of Swift’s Houyhnhnms, Stapledon’s Eighteenth Men (Homo sapiens being the First Men), or the numerous aliens and cybernetic intelligences of modern SF.42 It connotes that utopias are in a strange and not yet clarified way an allegorical genre akin to the parable and analogy. In the parable or analogy, the premises do not have to be realistic as long as the upshot is clear. Thus, utopia is always aimed at human relations, but its characters do not have to be human or even outwardly anthropomorphic. Their relationships and communities, though, will make sense only insofar as they can be judged as similar or dissimilar to human ones.
The element of community differentiates utopias on the one hand from “robinsonades,” stories of castaways outside of an alternate community.43 On the other hand, this terminology tries to steer a middle course in the debate which seems to have raged in Mitteleuropa between State worshippers and Kantian or anarchist individualists among critics, an echo of which is heard in Krysmanski’s Solomonic solution of a “synopsis” of man, society, and history. The “anarchists” (for example, Berneri) stressed the moral behavior of individuals, the “archists” the normative power of institutions. Too narrow an interest in governmental apparatus leads to the deadly boredom of eighteenth-century Staatsromane in the narrow sense – say, certain works extolling constitutional monarchies in the South Seas. Too wide a sense of utopia, which with Bloch would embrace medical, biological, technological, erotic, and even philosophical wish-dreams, leads to incorporating Don Juan and Faust, the Theses on Feuerbach and
- Frye, “Varieties of Literary Utopias,” p. 32.
- See e.g. Robert Boguslaw’s discussion of men as “operating units” in The New Utopians (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1965), passim, which effects a witty juxtaposition of Utopias and “system design.”
- See Brüggemann (Bibliography II), especially pp. 187–89.
The Magic Flute,into utopia: a somewhat overweening imperalism. The middle course suggested in what is, I hope, my prudent use of “community where sociopolitical institutions, norms, and individual relationships are organized according to a more perfect principle” (see section 3), focuses on the sociopolitical concern with justice and happiness, on the “radical eudemonism” of utopia’s “detailed, serious discussion of political and sociological matters.”44 And if utopia is not a myth valid for all eternity but a historical genre, the acknowledgement of its context in the adjunct “than in the author’s community” seems mandatory – most utopias would not be such for most of us today without that adjunct, since one man’s perfection is another man’s (or class’s) terror.
Yet, finally, it cannot be denied that sociopolitical perfection, though I believe it historically crucial in our epoch, is logically only a part of Bloch’s spectrum, which extends from alchemy through immortality to omniscience and the Supreme Good. All cognition can become the subject matter of an estranged verbal construction dealing with a particular quasi-human community treated as an alternative history. This “cognitive estrangement” is the basis of the literary genre of SF. Strictly and precisely speaking, utopia is not a genre but the sociopolitical subgenre of science fiction. Paradoxically, it can be seen as such only now that SF has expanded into its modern phase, “looking backward” from its englobing of utopia. Further, that expansion was in some not always direct ways a continuation of classical and nineteenth-century utopian literature. Thus, conversely, SF is at the same time wider than and at least collaterally descended from utopia; it is, if not a daughter, yet a niece of utopia – a niece usually ashamed of the family inheritance but unable to escape her genetic destiny. For all its adventure, romance, popularization, and wondrousness, SF can finally be written only between the utopian and the anti-utopian horizons. All imaginable intelligent life, including ours, can be organized only more or less perfectly. In that sense, utopia (and anti-utopia) is first of all a literary genre; but finally, as Bloch notes, it is a horizon within which humanity is
- First quotation from Barthes, p. 86, second from Elliott, p. 110.
irrevocably collocated. My main point is that without a full, that is, literal and literary, analysis we are bound to oversimplify and misconstrue those horizons. For any sane understanding of utopia, the simple basic fact to start from remains that it is not hypostasis of the Holy Ghost, the Zeitgeist,or whatnot, but a literary genre induced from a set of man-made books within a man-made history.